The men from Dono’s clan, broad-shouldered and surly, squashed the words between their teeth, and the mere hissing sound left others guessing what had to be obeyed. But they all obeyed Dono. His wish was law. Everyone was shattered under it. At the age of 25, he became the chieftain of the carters of the whole district, and made it clear that he would not endure dissension or disturbance. Dono gathered all his men and, watched by hundreds of eyes, broke the former chieftain’s right hand. The thieves who terrorized the caravans of carts in the Slavic gorge near Sofia were scared out of their wits; a day later, Dono set fire to their homes.
   
One of the thieves, thin and tall like a lamp post and nicknamed Hunchback, became Dono’s groom. The man’s back was crooked; his shoulders were bony and drooping. Hunchback was Dono’s servant and had sufficient nerve to stare at his patron’s face, flooding it with hatred of his black, glowing eyes. Dono found perverse pleasure in egging on Hunchback’s venom; it bespoke weakness, so apparent and tangible, that it had driven Hunchback’s eyes deep into his skull; a thick and lasting impotence that the chieftain could play with.

Woe to Hunchback if Lisso, Dono’s horse, did not jump when the patron caught sunbeams in a mirror and sent them to the shining back of the stallion. Woe to the servant if a single hair of the horse’s tail was entangled with another. Dono knew that his servant’s name was Boris, but never called him by it. “Hunchback!” he shouted, and while the long scraggly man shuffled his bones to answer the call, the chieftain beat the heel of his shoe with a thin willow branch. Black would turn the day for Hunchback if the branch hit the heel of the shoe more than three times.
   
For the past two months, Boris had taken care of Vecka, the chieftain’s wife. She couldn’t stand on her feet. All women from Dono’s clan became ugly a year or two after their weddings. They turned into speechless brooms; canvas sacks from which the young carters elbowed their way into the world. Dono had chosen motherless Vecka on purpose, so that no one would ask after her. For who, Dono thought, would care anything about one snotty brat among 11 others? Her father? Not likely. The old pouch would kiss his feet if the chieftain threw him a coin.
   
Dono did not need a wife’s love; he had squandered passion and jealousy on numerous beauties in Sofia, and got tired of it. He did not need a wife for his bed; the carters’ chieftain could have the best girl in the district. Yet Dono wanted a wife for his house — to make the windows shine and to remove every speck of dust from the floor. He wanted a son from her. He wanted her hands to sweep his stables and her eyes to smile at his guests. He had no relish for talking with her. His wife had to resemble the thieves from the Slavic gorge at whom he took shots with his gun; eight feet away from them he stood, aiming at the forehead. Then Dono could feel his power, which was enormous and straight, like a road without an end.
     
He could never feel that way when Vecka was near him. Coming back home every day, her voice rolled over him: “I was sly to tie him; I was strong to hide him …” It didn’t sound like a song; it did not utter words like a human voice. Not a song, but a tremendous roaring whirlwind threshed through his yard, dashed down the hill, tearing away the roofs of his cousins’ houses, jarring upon his ears, setting his thoughts on fire. He wriggled like a worm with shame. Shame! She made him ashamed! He, Dono, the boss, before whom all carters knelt dumb and tractable! The chieftain, whose word was stronger than the law, the man who possessed more power than the mayor, was made into a fool and a laughingstock. His father had bequeathed all the land of the family to Dono, though he was the youngest of the five brothers. Vecka, his wife … At the very sound of her name he seethed with anger. Year in, year out, she gave birth to girls and filled his house with female rubbish. Whenever he approached his home he could hear her shouting that goddamn song.
   
Rarely, Dono got so enraged that he beat her with his belt. At such moments he tried to imagine her shrieks flooding the quiet houses of his native hamlet and all his cousins would be convinced that he wore the trousers, not Vecka. She thrust her apron in her mouth to stifle the sounds of pain, so he tore up the apron. She then bit the hems of her skirt; he tore up the skirt as well. She learned to bite her fists. Dono could not make her scream. It was the swishing of the belt and Hunchback’s bent figure by the door that gave the sign to the villagers that Dono was teaching his wife to respect silence. And always when the swishing ceased, broken and smashed, as slowly as an ant, a song clambered through the window: “I was sly to tie him; I was strong to hide him …” Then Hunchback’s shallow eyes burned.

Dono didn’t strike his wife beyond a certain point, for he did not wish to waste his youth in jail. When he went out, the noise of his steps still echoing in the lane, his four daughters quietly crooned “I was sly to tie him …,” their voices twisted into a rope that knotted the whole house. At such times, Dono did not feel like lingering at home. He caught sunbeams in a mirror and sent them to the back of the horse, then master and stallion vanished down the road to the pub. Hunchback stood motionless at the door.
   
Once, as Vecka’s stifled sobs made the house split with pain, the servant approached her and offered her some wet rags. He was ashamed to watch how the woman put them on her bruised shoulders. He had seen only her naked arm. It did not look like an arm of a woman; its skin resembled a dry stick with a peeled bark. Yet his shallow eyes saw it otherwise; they swept away the scars, and Vecka’s hand appeared tender and white: the fingers that gave him lunch every day swam before Hunchback, enveloping him with fragrance and peace. Every single patch of land where the woman had stepped seemed to whisper her name.
   
Dono’s mother was never young. When his father got on for 50, he imagined he was no good as a carter anymore and sold his horses. But instead of buying a chandler’s shop as he had hinted earlier, the old goat took a young girl and disappeared. It was rumored that the couple escaped to Greece, and when Dono’s father came back dragging the girl after him and looking boldly at people who lowered their eyes, Dono thought he would kill him. His mother died shortly after that, and Dono could not learn the end of the tale she had begun telling him in his childhood, the only tale he had ever heard.
   
The chieftain detested his memories because every time he let them flood back, he compared Vecka to his mother. Well, his mother was never beaten; she was a drooping heap of decay by the fireplace, and the only sound that compelled her to stir and move about uneasily was the delicate tap-tap of his father’s fingers on the table. “I was sly to tie him; I was strong to hide him …” Was it so? Against his own will, Dono sometimes crooned that song. Vecka’s voice was stronger than his hatred. He never listened further, for that would mean he was an inferior man.
   
The straw that broke the camel’s back was when Vecka cut Lisso’s tail. The horse’s tail that no money could buy! That horse was the only living thing Dono had ever prayed for in his life; Lisso was his friend, the only being that could understand him. The stallion knew everything: Dono’s disgrace in having no son; his panic that some day his chieftain’s hand would not hold firm, and a pert youngster would come and break it, as Dono himself had done to the former chieftain. And his vixen wife had stunted his best friend; the horse with a velvety hide and deep brown eyes that spoke to Dono’s soul, “You are not only a master to me. You are my road, my water, my life. No foul money stands between us. No lies.”
        
Vecka had cut Lisso’s tail! She had destroyed that wild silver whirlwind. No, Dono would never forgive her.
   
How could his father order around his mother, the old grey woman, forcing her to work and toil until every single saucer and piece of furniture shone? When the house was clean, she would squat in the corner, mute and unnecessary like a pair of old shoes. Dono was richer than his father, 10 times richer. So why didn’t the carter break the brown porcelain cup from which his wife drank milk in the morning? Why, Lisso?
   
He’d show her!

The moment before the iron clasp of the belt hit Vecka’s grey dress, someone clutched at Dono’s throat. “I cut the tail!” Hunchback, the servant, was looking at him with his shallow wild eyes.

“You?” the carter hissed back, “You?”

“I cut it.” said the hunchback.

“No!” Vecka shouted. “I did it.”

“Who cut Lisso’s tail!” Dono demanded.

“I!”

“I!”

The voices of his wife and Hunchback roared out together. Dono could hear nothing more. His four daughters were looking through the window like four drab mice. Dono didn’t care. He could hear Hunchback’s husky voice singing: “I was sly to tie him, I was strong to …”

“Stop, please, Boris, stop!” his wife shouted.    What? What did she call him? Boris? That hunchback! That wretch! Boris!

Vecka began singing again. The bitch. The bitch! Her grey dress. Her loathsome dress. Hit it! Trample on it!

Don’t sing any more, eh? What about you, little Boris? You rag!
   
When Dono approached the pub, he imagined he could hear their voices twisted into a knot: “I was sly to tie him …” The song pressed down on him, his breath rasped on his lips. The carter let his horse go and lay down on the yellow grass in the sunburnt field. The hot noon sky reeled and touched the earth that was scorching in the late yellow summer.

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